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When And How To Disclose Trauma, Abuse & Mental Illness

Nicole asks: I’ve struggled with chronic depression/anxiety on and off for 10 years and have been aggressively treating it, but it's never completely receded. I’ve been dating someone whom I adore and dated 25 years ago when I was 18. He came back into the picture and I’ve been dating him for six weeks. I adore him, and the feeling is mutual. I’ve never been so happy and comfortable with anyone and he's been quite clear that he feels the same.

My depression is moderate,not severe, so I’ve been able to put on a front, and being with him improves my mood to an extent. For some odd reason, my depression and anxiety completely clear the day after I drink alcohol,which we do often, so between my acting ability and the drinking, he doesn't suspect anything. My anti depressant is in the form of a 24 hr patch, and in the first week, he asked me what it was. I was taken off guard, and wasn’t yet comfortable enough to open what could potentially be a Pandora’s box, so I told him it was an antibiotic. He does know that I take prescription sleeping pills, and immediately asked me what kind they were, but didn’t seem to find it offputting. I’m not combative or tearful, I’m just lethargic, have a lot of trouble concentrating and have trouble experiencing pleasure and I don’t expect this to resolve soon, or maybe even ever. He’s very kind supportive, but I fear that telling him this may overwhelm him.

We are becoming serious, and I feel that I have a responsibility to confide in him about my depression issues, so he can break things off now if it’s an issue, and before I become further attached, which is happening fast. 

However, I also think that the closer we become and the more invested he is, the more understanding he’ll be, but I also don’t want to wait too long, as he might be upset that I was withholding somewhat important information from him. Needless to say, I’m absolutely dreading this conversation, I’m terrified that he’ll reject me and I simply don’t know how to broach it. It’s weighing on my heavily and I am fraught with anxiety. It’s a sensitive situation with an uncertain outcome and I don’t want to botch it. What’s the right thing to do here? I feel like there are no good options. When and how do I tell him?

Before we dig in, I want to point out that you submitted this letter as well. I'm pointing this out for a reason, which I'll get to in a moment.

Society and the patriarchy want women to believe that our bodies and minds are public property. They're not. What we do with it and what goes on within the confines of it are nobody's business but ours.

As someone diagnosed with chronic depression and who has a history of trauma, my personal belief is that - unless someone's well-being or health is at risk - they don't need to know anything about you'll medical or personal history. Obviously, as the intimacy deepens, you'll want to disclose aspects of your past, but that's an entirely different thing. In fact, I'm a huge advocate of waiting to disclose anything sensitive until a relationship - platonic or otherwise - is solid and there's little doubt of the other person's character. Forget about protecting them. Your only responsibility is to you and your mental health. You're not a walking time bomb or carrying a communicable disease. You have a common and easily treatable condition.Nothing more. That goes for all mental illness. As long as you're managing the issue responsibly, nobody needs to know anything.

You mentioned your drinking to quell anxiety in your previous letter as well. I know that - for me - frequent drinking counter-acts my anti-depressants. It makes the lethargy worse for me. As a result, I can't drink very often. I mean, I can, it's not life-threatening or anything, but I don't because of how it affects me emotionally and physically. I'm more inclined to give in to the already low-grade weariness I feel, which can snowball into a possible depressive episode. I bring this up because you're saying you want to keep the depression a secret for as long as you can, but you're doing things that will hinder that goal. It might be a good idea to examine that, preferably with your therapist and doctor.

My general rule of thumb is to open up about about my history when and if I feel the relationship might be negatively affected or my behavior needs context and clarification. A good example would be if I sensed a depressive episode coming on and knew it would make me less available emotionally and physically. Rather than continuously cancel plans or somehow withdraw, I would explain that my depression can sometimes make it hard for me to be around other people as it makes me more sensitive and fatigued. I would then suggest a low key night in if I knew I could handle it. Note how I said if I could handle it, not them. You're not responsible for other people's reactions or tolerance levels. By explaining, you did your part. Either they'll understand or they won't. If they've spent enough time with you to see this is just a blip - a blip no different than feeling run down with a cold - they'll understand and be supportive. I wouldn't make it a thing because it's not. Trauma and mental illness are not obstacles to intimacy unless we make them one. It's not on you to protect someone else from your depression. You only owe yourself that level of concern.

With that out of the way, the most pressing question I have after reading your letter is: why do you feel compelled to tell him at all? This is something anybody with a history of trauma, inter-generational or inter-relational abuse, mental illness or similar concern needs to ask themselves. What is behind the desire to share this information? What are you hoping to achieve? Again, I will call back to your previous letter wherein we discussed your possible issues with attachment. In both letters, you appear to wrestle with impulse control and have a tendency to overshare regarding your insecurities. Is it possible you might be trying to self-sabotage a bit here? I'll again urge you to discuss your need to open up about your depression with your therapist.

My biggest worry about opening up too soon or too publicly is that you might end up doing the very thing you're trying to avoid. While I stand by my opinion that you are not required in any way to be upfront about personal aspects of your life,

someone who doesn't have first-hand experience with trauma or mental illness might find the disclosure overwhelming. They're allowed to process it however they choose - even if it's short-sighted and ignorant - and you have no say as to how they do that. That's a very important point you must acknowledge. Also be aware that revealing too soon or in a way that feels out of context might make them wonder if you're dealing with the issue in a healthy way or still very much defined by it. That is an extremely valid concern to have on their part. That's why waiting until you really get to know someone is a wiser move in these situations. Let them get an idea of your baseline ie how you interact within and handle certain stressors and scenarios. Once they have a fuller picture of your personality and well-being, they'll be less likely to worry that your history might compromise the progress of your relationship.

I'll close by saying that successful disclosure is all about the approach. If you frame whatever it is you're sharing as just a small aspect of who you are and discuss it with confidence, you probably won't have any issues. But if you address it as though it's a dark cloud or mysterious secret the way this counter-intuitive article suggests, expect it to throw a wrench in what might have been an otherwise promising relationship.

There's nothing organic about dropping hints and teasing people with some deep, dark secret. Address it only when you're ready to discuss it fully and answer reasonable questions. In fact, read that linked article and do the exact opposite of everything suggested. A harsh reaction to your reveal should absolutely be met with a parting of ways. You will never change someone's mind or help them course-correct their ignorance. Again, that's not your job. Your job is to take care of yourself in a way that works for you and you alone.

I wish you well.

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